ALBANY — As the summer heats up, one of the most popular swimming holes on the Swift River — the Lower Falls Recreation Site — is off limits to would-be dippers so that it can get a much-needed renovation.
Located in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF), off the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, work began at Lower Falls in mid-June and is expected to last until mid-November, Colleen Mainville, a spokesperson for the WMNF, on Monday.
Mainville said the project, which entails a number of improvements to make the venue safer for visitors and even more respectful of the environment, is proceeding well with no known delays.
She did add, however, that because it is so well-known and beloved, the Lower Falls site is generating interest and many stops by curious motorists, an action that is causing the WMNF and Forest Service some concern because it could lead to accidents on the Kanc.
Despite warning signs about the work at Lower Falls on both ends of the 34.5 mile road which connects Conway in the east with Lincoln in the west, as well as jersey barriers blocking the site’s entrance, “many people are trying to pull in there and it’s really creating a dangerous situation for people traveling that part of the Kanc,” said Mainville.
Officially, she said, a forest closure order is in effect for Lower Falls and access to the site is prohibited. Law enforcement agencies are patrolling the area and anyone found at Lower Falls is subject to a $200 fine.
Mainville said the WMNF and Forest Service’s approach is motivated only by concern for the public’s safety.
“It’s a hard-hat area. Trees are being felled and there’s heavy equipment working,” Mainville said, “and there is just no way for people to pull in and see what’s going on.”
“We’re advising caution,” she continued, “do not try to slow down and pull in there,” but if people have questions about what’s going on, Mainville said they should address them to staff at either visitor centers and/or Ranger stations on or near the Kancamagus.
Despite the inconvenience created by the site’s closure, Mainville stressed that “We just want people to be safe.” Asked about the scheduling of the work, she replied that this being New England, the spring-into-fall building season was the only time when the repairs and enhancements could be made there.
Among the improvements taking place at Lower Falls are the redefinition of pathways; installation of drainage in the parking lot to protect the Swift River from sedimentation and road-salt runoff; better definition of landscaping to create buffers between the Kancamagus and the recreation area; and improved accessibility sitewide, including to a viewing platform and a picnic pavilion built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Also, the project entails improving sightlines in and out of the parking area; providing space for emergency vehicles and motorcycles; renovation of a small guard station; and installation of a pathway to separate vehicles from pedestrians.
Glen Builders of Conway has the contract for the roughly $615,000 project that Mainville said is paid for through grants from National Scenic Byways; the New Hampshire Department of Transportation; and the Natural Resource Conservation Service in addition to fees collected at the site through the Recreation Enhancement Act.
Brian Johnston, who is the assistant district ranger at the Saco Ranger Station on the Kancamagus, said he’s been telling people who inquire about the nearby Lower Falls Recreation Site that “it’s a great summer to find a new, favorite spot, because there are many great spots around.”
Johnston said White Lake State Park in Tamworth and Echo Lake State Park in Conway offer water-recreation opportunities and can accommodate many visitors, in addition to being “really cool spots on a hot summer day.”
Should anyone wish to explore a river-side setting, Johnston asked them to practice the “leave no trace ethic,” meaning that all supplies are carried in and carried out and that to protect the river system, human waste is disposed of properly.